Ever find yourself stuck in a mental rut, ruminating like a broken record about how things should be? This type of thinking can distort how you see the world—and make you less happy.
Here is what’s going on: Your mind has an incredible ability to alter your perception with what psychologists call “cognitive distortions,” meaning rigid, inflexible ideas that color the way you interpret the world. For example, you might notice only negative experiences and ignore the positive, or you might think you have only two choices when, in reality, you have many.
When cognitive distortions kick in, you get stuck thinking about what could or should have been. “That doesn’t leave a lot of room for engaging with the present moment and seeing things for what they are,” explains Matthew Della Porta, YouBeauty Happiness Expert. “We get caught up in our thoughts instead of simply noting the experience for what it is.” That’s a recipe for unhappiness.
When you feel sad or anxious, cognitive distortions are usually the cause, whether you recognize them or not. These kinds of thoughts are the core of depression—they’re intimately tied to mood. The more you can learn to challenge these rigid ideas, the easier and faster you’ll bounce back from a bump in the road.
Here are six common cognitive distortions that can ruin your mood—and how to beat them:
1) You tend to focus on the negative.
We all get upset sometimes, but for some people, their aches, pains and upsets always loom large. Focusing on the negative leads to “filtering,” where any good experiences are ignored in favor of the bad.
“Bad is stronger than good in a number of ways,” says Della Porta. “People are generally more affected by a negative mood state than they are by a positive one; a bad mood is also described as more intense and people are more likely to remember it.” In other words, it’s easy to let yourself see only the gloom and doom.
Instead, practice focusing on the positive. Try to notice three good things every day or keep a daily gratitude journal. “That doesn’t mean you completely ignore the bad things if they require your attention or some kind of change,” adds Della Porta. “But they’re not something you need to continually think or ruminate about.” Just let those thoughts go and come back to something you’re grateful for right now.
2) You make mountains out of molehills.
Everyone knows someone who makes a huge deal out of seemingly tiny hiccups—the princess and the pea, so to speak—and every once in a while, we’re all guilty of doing the same. But blowing things out of proportion (also known as “catastrophizing”) can really get you down.
“Simply put, it means dreading something more than you need to,” explains Della Porta. Say you accidentally send a flirtatious text to your boss that was meant for your boyfriend. You panic, thinking, “My boss will think I’m hitting on him, then I’ll get fired and I will starve to death in my living room because I’ll never find another job in this economy.” Soon, you’re having a bona fide freakout.
No need to go there. “Force yourself to sit down and think clearly about what could happen,” says Della Porta. “If you really break it down step by step, you’ll see that it doesn’t hold up well to logic. It’s pretty irrational.” The worst that could happen is never as bad as the horrors you imagine.
3) You see the world in black and white.
You’ve probably felt stuck between a rock and a hard place on more than one occasion. When we’re faced with a tough decision—or a sticky relationship quandary—we often unconsciously limit our choices by thinking in black and white.
Consider this example: If you’re feeling frustrated with your boyfriend lately, you might say to yourself, “I need to either break up with him or just grin and bear it.” You only consider two extremes when, in reality, there are many other routes you could take.
When you notice yourself thinking in binaries, challenge yourself to come up with other options. Think about all the ways you could move forward until you land on one that feels right for you. Sometimes it helps to ask yourself: “What do I really want out of this situation?” There are always more than two means to an end—and one of them will feel like a match.
4) You need to be in control.
If you’re not a micromanager, then you certainly know one. Their need to control everything can be a handful for everyone involved. “What it comes down to is trust,” says Della Porta. “If you don’t really trust the other person, then you need to be in charge.” That can alienate other people, leaving you feeling alone and overloaded.
“If you’re the kind of person who likes to be in control and isn’t willing to trust other people, give yourself permission to be involved in a relationship where it’s really not going to matter very much and allow the other person to determine what will happen,” suggests Della Porta. For example: Try giving an assistant a low-stakes project that she can take on from start to finish without any input from you, or try making a new friend and letting her decide where and when you meet. The more you give up control in small ways, the more comfortable you’ll feel letting go when the stakes are higher.
5) You do what you should do—not what you want to do.
Take a second to list everything you think you should do. Between exercising, eating well and calling your mom more often (just to name a few), you probably have a pretty long list. We all do.
There’s nothing wrong with realizing that you can’t always do exactly what you want—we all have to coexist, after all—but you’re in for trouble when you lose sight of what you want altogether. “It’s easy to start putting pressure on yourself,” explains Della Porta. “You think, ‘If I do this, I’m a good person, and if not, I’m a bad person.’” That mindset leaves you feeling like you’re not the one calling the shots—it’s disempowering.
Especially when it comes to self-improvement, “cut yourself some slack,” Della Porta says. “Stop holding yourself up to such stringent standards. That won’t be easy to keep up day after day.” Instead, practice replacing ‘I should do this’ with ‘it would be nice if I did this.’ That way, it’s an option, but it’s not the end of the world if you’d really rather do something else.
6) You feel like you have to prove yourself.
Ever feel like you’re fighting to be heard or taken seriously? That can make you want to be right all the time—no exceptions. Not only is that unpleasant for those around you, your self-esteem takes a blow every time you’re wrong.
“If you grow up in a family or go to a school where people disregard your opinion, that can lead you to over-compensate,” says Della Porta. You might insist that you’re right, talk over other people or refuse to give up on a seemingly minor point (think: Pete Campbell on “Mad Men”).
To cultivate a little humility, think about what it would mean to you if you were wrong. Would it mean you’re not smart? Not worthy? Della Porta suggests reminding yourself, “I’m not a total dummy—I’m just wrong about this one particular thing and that’s okay.” And even if you’re right, whomever you’re talking to probably wants to be heard just as much as you do.
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